This is the hard and shocking story of life in a British Borstal for young offenders. Luckily the regime has changed since this film was made. The brutal regime made no attempt to reform or improve the inmates and actively encouraged a power struggle between the 'tough' new inmate and the 'old hands'. The film was originally made as a BBC play but it was banned before ever being shown. So 'Alan Clarke' and 'Roy Minton' got it re-made as a film. This is a tough and brutal film and should not be viewed lightly.
Every so often, when a film has a less-than-nominal experience being birthed into this world and winds up being shelved or its release delayed – rather than getting lovingly plopped in front of audiences eager to part ways with their hard-earned cash for 90-minutes or more of forgetting their problems through the promise of being entertained by the problems of fictional (or fictionalized) characters – the behind-the-scenes story runs the risk of overshadowing the tale the movie had tried so hard to tell in the first place.
That is, in many ways, true of Alan Clarke's 1979 film 'Scum' – which had previously come into existence as Alan Clarke's 1977 BBC teleplay of the same name that was shelved by the network, reportedly due to its (at the time) rather graphic and shocking depiction of Britain's borstal system for young men and juvenile offenders. Although the exact reasons why the teleplay was shelved seem to change slightly depending on who happens to be telling the story, the more interesting facet of the controversy is the way in which Clarke's film was resurrected years later – after the BBC's rights to the project lapsed. With the help of producers Davina Belling and Clive Parsons, the movie was completely re-shot (with much of the original cast returning) and had its theatrical debut.
This was no doubt a tricky proposition – the idea of filming something again for the purpose of a completely different kind of distribution – but somehow Clarke managed to pull from his actors, young and old alike, solid performances which kept the film from veering into the realm of pure shock or exploitation, and no doubt played an integral part in ensuring 'Scum' was not forgotten in the 30-plus years since its initial release.
A large part of that has to do with the likeability of the cast; namely, a 22-ish Ray Winstone as Carlin - the new inmate with a reputation for violence, and Mick Ford as Archer - the school's resident intellectual superior, who essentially serves as the mouthpiece for the picture's morality. Although Winstone and Ford play more prominent roles than many of the other inmates and share the screen with older actors playing guards (or "screws"), 'Scum' is essentially an ensemble – it doesn't necessarily follow a single storyline from start to finish, but rather examines a select section of time in order to make an observation regarding borstal schools, the roots of its failure, and the complacency of the government in regard to the long-standing allegations of violent abuse, rape and suicide within the system.
'Scum' takes place over an indeterminate amount of time and recounts how Carlin's early efforts to simply keep his head down and do his time with a minimum of fuss is interrupted by Pongo, the "Daddy" of the particular house Carlin finds himself housed in. Pongo's efforts to intimidate the newcomer prove to be his downfall, and after suffering some abuse at the hands of Pongo and his crew, Carlin retaliates in a well-crafted scene that is both disturbingly violent and viscerally entertaining. From there, the film begins to point at the back-and-forth manipulation between the school's officials and the inmates, as those in charge were often only too willing to allow certain inmates to (sometimes violently) police themselves - as long as it made the correctional officers' jobs easier, while the inmates with the most clout (i.e., the Daddy) would be given certain considerations to which he otherwise would not be entitled.
Both versions (television and theatrical) are credited to screenwriter Roy Minton, who does an excellent job avoiding most prison-film clichés, while still adhering to the tropes that make the subgenre work and remain easily identifiable. Primarily, though, Minton's screenplay is concerned with probing the notions of control and conformity, and how those who have obtained any amount of power tend to want to keep it and are typically willing to do anything in order to do so. 'Scum' takes a hardnosed look at the major flaws in the penal system – especially the juvenile portion, referencing several young men who would have been better off in prison – and what it means to break a man by stripping him of his dignity. As Minton sees it, there comes a breaking point in every person, and when all they've been shown is brutality - those individuals will respond in kind.
It's a far more thought-provoking film than it's title and "cult" status would suggest. And yet, the BBC's refusal to air the teleplay and the controversy it stirred in some – primarily social activist Mary Whitehouse – certainly feels rather forced or otherwise indefensible by today's standards. To its credit, 'Scum' was far more interested in being an examination of an institution's shortcomings and in making some kind of legitimate social statement, than being the exploitative film so many accused it of being.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Hailing from the fine folks over at Kino Classics, 'Scum' is a single 50GB Blu-ray disc housed in the standard keepcase. The artwork highlights Ray Winstone above the title, while playing up the film's cult status. There are no previews on the disc, which means it jumps right to the top menu.
'Scum' has been given a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer from film which was restored in 2012 by the Restoration Department Pinewood Studios UK, who were working from the original 35mm camera negative. The result, then, is simply stunning. For many, this may be the first time viewing the film, and if so, it's going to be a pleasure. For those who may have seen a previous release somewhere, the difference in quality may be rather dramatic.
There has been a significant effort put forth in getting the film on Blu-ray in the best possible shape, and I'm pleased to say that the folks as Pinewood Studios were diligent in their task and have come up with a tremendous transfer that doesn't go too far with the digital manipulation or scrubbing that can otherwise upset the restoration process. Here, the image has been thoroughly cleaned, leaving no trace of noise, scratches or dust anywhere on the final product. Additionally, there are no hints of screen flicker or distortion of any kind. Most impressive, however, is that the image still retains its filmic quality; there's plenty of grain on the screen, but it feels natural and never distorts the picture or distracts the viewer.
Moreover, the grain never overwhelms the fine detail that's present in the image that can sometimes be the case with older films. Here, fine detail fills nearly every shot, but is especially noticeable in close-ups on the actors' faces and the textures in their clothing. Detail is also quite high in wide-angle shots that establish the film's setting and gives the viewer a good idea of just how isolated these young men are.
There are a few examples where the focus seems to be a little soft, and it's difficult to tell whether that was the result of the way it was originally filmed, or if it came about in some other manner. While it is noticeable in some places, it's never enough to be considered a major problem; the soft focus just keeps the overall image quality from crossing over into the excellent range.
'Scum' comes with two audio options, a remastered DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and a 2.0 stereo. For the purpose of this review, the DTS-HD track was chosen and it does a fantastic job of balancing the dialogue with the atmospheric noises of the borstal school.
One of the aspects of 'Scum' that makes it so unique is the fact that it has no musical score at all. That means the DTS-HD track must only work on two elements, which it does quite well. Most of the dialogue is quite clean, easily discernable – even though many of these young actors speak with thick accents – and balanced well against the atmospheric noises of the reform school, like the din of a games room, the mess hall or the squeaky echo of a guard's shoes on the tiled floor.
Even though the mix sounds good and is well balanced, there are certain elements that seem to have been present upon the initial recording that simply couldn't have been removed – though their presence may have been diminished some. For the most part, the main issue is the dialogue can, at times, become a bit pitchy when characters are speaking with raised voices or are yelling over one another. Additionally, some of the sound effects have a tinny or hollow feel to them that lessens the overall effect of the sound in some places, but isn't necessarily a deal breaker.
All in all, this is a nice audio mix that highlights the most important aspect of the film's sound and mostly manages to overcome its faults.
The term "cult classic" gets thrown around a lot. Usually it's to justify the continued mining of aging niches and geek culture in order to dig up films and programs that have a so-called "cult" following and either reboot it or oversell it; using its status as a means by which it can finally reach a larger audience – ostensibly obliterating its favor amongst those who'd helped to establish it as cult in the first place. 'Scum' is one of those films that could probably use some extra time in the spotlight. It's well-known elsewhere, but possibly an undiscovered gem amongst some in the U.S. Either way, this fantastic remastered edition comes packed with excellent picture, good sound and some insightful interviews and commentary that will be of great interest for fans and newcomers alike. Recommended.